Governor Ricardo Rossello (New Progressive Party/PNP) is expected to sign into law as early as today a bill that he supported which would hold a plebiscite in the islands between statehood and nationhood under a 2014 Federal law. The Legislative Assembly completed action on the bill last night.
The vote would be conducted June 11th. If statehood wins, the Government of Puerto Rico would conduct a major campaign to convince the U.S. Congress to grant the status.
If nationhood wins, there would be a another vote October 8th between independence and “free association.” Under free association, one nation allows another nation to exercise some of the first nation’s sovereign powers on the condition that either nation can end the association. There are a small number of such free associations around the world.
The U.S. is in free association with three island groups with very small populations in the Pacific. Under these associations, the U.S. has full powers over the defense of the islands, has extended some domestic programs to them, has temporarily granted substantial government subsidies, and permits their citizens to enter the U.S. without regard to immigration restrictions other than those involving security. The “freely associated states” are fully self-governing and have their own international relations that cannot conflict with U.S. security.
The 2014 Federal law provides for Puerto Rico to have a plebiscite on options that would resolve the question of the territory’s future status and that are found by the U.S. Department of Justice to not be incompatible with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
The 2014 law was enacted because the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) officials who narrowly won control of Puerto Rico’s government in 2012 disputed a plebiscite held under local law on the same day. That vote rejected continuing territory status, often misleadingly called “commonwealth status,” and, then, choose statehood with 61.1% of the vote, compared with 33.3% for “Sovereign Free Associated State,” and 5.6% for independence.
The PPD argued that the plebiscite was unfair because Puerto Rico was not a territory and because the party’s “commonwealth status” proposal was not on the ballot. All three branches of the Federal government regard Puerto Rico as a territory, and the Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations and congressional committee leaders of both national parties and in both houses of Congress have rejected the PPD’s “commonwealth status” proposal for constitutional and other reasons.
Last year’s Federal law on Puerto Rico’s finances, PROMESA, explicitly stated that the islands are a territory and stated that it would not interfere with the territory choosing its future status. The U.S. Supreme Court last year also reaffirmed Puerto Rico’s territory status, prompted by the U.S. Justice Department, at least in part because of the Obama Administration’s desire to obtain enactment of a law like PROMESA.
The PNP won the 2016 elections on a platform of aggressively seeking statehood. The status is the top priority of Rossello, the PNP’s two-thirds majority in each house of the Legislative Assembly, and Resident Commissioner in Washington, DC, Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R/PNP), who has a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Statehood or nationhood are necessary for Puerto Ricans to have equal voting representation in the government that makes their national laws and for Puerto Ricans to be treated equally under national laws. PNP leaders make the case that this equality within the U.S. is necessary for Puerto Rico’s failing territory economy to be substantially improved.
One of the first bills that Gonzalez-Colon introduced in the U.S. House would make Puerto Rico a State in 2025 if statehood wins a plebiscite under the 2014 Federal law. In the interim, equal treatment in Federal laws would be phased in according to a plan determined by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.
The 2016 Republican National Platform called for the Congress to enact statehood legislation if statehood wins a vote under the 2014 Federal law. Earlier, President Trump said during his campaign that Congress should consider the status for Puerto Rico if it wins a referendum.
In the past, Democrats in Congress have demonstrated more openness to statehood than Republicans.
The PPD has not decided yet what to do about the plebiscite. Some leaders want to say that it is unfair because it does not include the federally-rejected “commonwealth.” Others have advocated free association. Some suggested a boycott.
View text of the new law here.